For all the inspiring resilience and determination that’s evident in long counterpunching rallies, there is nothing as spectacular in tennis as a stone cold winner.
When we see an impossible retrieval that elicits an error from the other side of the net, we nod our head in approval and applaud silently. But when we see a player belt the ball for a clean winner, we can’t stop ourselves from letting out a gasp of amazement.
Do the players think that way too? Do they feel more energised when they hit a winner, as compared to when they coax an error out of the opponent? You would think they do, since that would explain why so many power hitters make so many unforced errors; the temptation to hit the ball out of reach of the opponent has to be hard to resist.
At the start of Naomi Osaka’s career, she almost never tried to resist that temptation. She has always had the monster serve and the point-ending power off her groundstrokes, and she used both those things to hit dozens of winners past her hapless opponents. But she also had a tendency to go for too much from difficult positions, and her results as a teenager were anything but consistent.
I had watched from the stands as Osaka played in the US Open main draw for the first time, back in 2016, and I couldn’t help but be in awe of her skills. She was facing Madison Keys in the third round of that tournament, and for over two hours she used her penetrating groundstrokes to give Keys, an immensely powerful player herself, the run-around. But after building a 5-1 lead in the third set she suddenly looked hell-bent on ending the match with a flurry of winners, and instead coughed up one error after another to eventually lose the match.
That pattern continued for the next two years, as Osaka kept enthralling spectators with her aggressive shot-making but also kept gifting away matches to her opponents through her impatience. That wasn’t necessarily a recipe for disaster; as the likes of Petra Kvitova, Maria Sharapova and Jelena Ostapenko have shown in recent times, it is possible to have a constant go-for-broke mindset and still win Grand Slams.
But you always thought Osaka was different; that she had it in her to be more than an imposing ball-basher who won a title one week and flamed out in the first round the next. On the few occasions that she chose to defend, she displayed tremendous agility and athleticism which helped her extend points. And she always had that serve to bank on – the one thing that many WTA players today don’t have, even if they have all the power in the world, which makes them vulnerable to getting broken frequently.
Sometime last year, Osaka seemed to have realised the importance of maximising her gifts. Her Indian Wells title run displayed all of that intimidating power, but it also showed the first signs of patience and court smarts from her. She was still blowing her opponents off the court on most occasions, but she was now also willing to hit with more spin and margin when she absolutely needed to win a point.
Like we have seen in the case of Stefanos Tsitsipas on the men’s side, Osaka was evolving before our very eyes. And by the end of the US Open, the results were there for everyone to see.
Her fourth round match against Aryna Sabalenka was especially indicative of her new approach to the game. It’s not often that Osaka runs into an opponent more powerful than herself, but in Sabalenka she did face that prospect. So she chose to abandon her strategy of ‘see ball, attempt winner’, and instead constructed points by varying her spins and angling balls into uncomfortable positions. Sabalenka still hit plenty of missiles that left Osaka flat-footed, but she couldn’t hit enough to win the match.
Something similar happened in the final against Serena Williams, although we may not remember it now in the wake of all the drama at the end. Yes, Williams was off her game that day, but Osaka still had to get enough balls back in play to make that count. She also had to keep putting Williams on the run, because we know the 23-time Slam champion will only make errors off mid-court balls for so long.
Osaka did both of those things with a composure that belied her age, and she has a US Open trophy to show for it.
At this year’s Australian Open Osaka hasn’t yet faced a power player of the ilk of Sabalenka or Williams. But she has still needed to do one thing that all power players hate: temper her aggression as ball after ball keeps coming back. In her last three matches – against Su-wei Hsieh, Anastasija Sevastova and Elina Svitolina – she has faced players who can defend like women possessed, and thus turn would-be winners into mere rally shots.
The temptation to hit past them has been strong. That was starkly evident at various stages of the first set against Svitolina today, as the Ukrainian kept hitting crosscourt backhands to confine Osaka to the ad court. But the Japanese was quick to learn from her mistakes.
“Sometimes if I hit hard, she just takes that and hits it right back at me. Especially on the backhand side, it’s very difficult because she just stays crosscourt. And then sometimes I feel like I have to go down the line early,” Osaka said of her numerous backhand errors early in the match.
Mid-way through the match, I counted at least three points that followed the exact pattern of what Osaka described. Svitolina would hit a crosscourt backhand, once, twice, thrice, and by the third one Osaka would get bored and try to switch direction. In the first three of those rallies Osaka made errors with the down-the-line backhand; in the fourth, she persisted with the crosscourt backhand and opened up a good enough angle to finish the point.
By the start of the second set, she knew she had control of the match, but she still had to be smart with her decision-making. “In the second set I just tried to play more and see if she’s gonna hit winners or not,” Osaka said when asked how she was able to finish the match so quickly despite the tough first set.
As expected, Svitolina couldn’t hit enough winners to make any kind of impression down the stretch. She was already ailing from a shoulder injury, but even if she wasn’t, you suspect she wouldn’t have had the raw power to put the ball past the sneaky-quick Osaka. What looked like a close match turned into a blowout, and Osaka was into her maiden Australian Open semifinal.
“It feels really good,” Osaka said of the win. “This is something that I have been working on a lot, which is, like, trying to get deeper in tournaments more consistently.”
The key work here is ‘consistently’. Not only has Osaka become more consistent with her shots during a match, she has also acquired that rare thing for a power hitter – the ability to maintain a steady level from one match to the next.
And she has done it all by resisting that ever-present temptation to attempt a winner every second shot. Even if it means her play is less spectacular than it was earlier.
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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2019 18:07:14 IST